Historical Revisionism and Partisan Politics in Medieval England
One of the most fascinating experiences of reading well-written histories is unearthing obscure parallels with contemporary life. Lord Macaulay‘s A History of England provides numerous insightful passages and molds a powerful lens on history that allows the reader to see current politics in an entirely new light.
According to Lord Acton, Macaulay was to be considered one of the three greatest liberals, along with Edmund Burke and William Gladstone. It is no surprise, therefore, that his political opponents condemned him as one who studied the past with reference to the present and wrote with a Whiggish one-sidedness. The man had a mind of his own and displayed explicit good judgment in his narration of history. This is the true source of his opponents’ enmity for the man – he frustrates their political agenda.
One of Macaulay’s greatest merits is the hatred of radicals for him and his writings. No less than Karl Marx, seeking to craft his own warped lens on history, must have found the British historian’s writings formidable and eminently persuasive. Eventually, Marx had to throw up his hands and merely brandish Macaulay as a “systematic falsifer of history.”
But contemporary analysis shows otherwise. Although he is often typecast as one who related history as dramatic prologue, exalting heroes and deriding villains, it has proven difficult for his adversaries to pinpoint factual inaccuracy in his works. And since he is so forthright with his reasoning, one has to conclude that those who castigate the author intend to do so because they do not desire the public to read his works and judge for themselves.
A short passage illustrates not only how sensitive Macaulay was to misrepresenting history, but yields a precedent on the practice of historical revisionism so common today.
The historical literature of England has indeed suffered grievously from a circumstance which has not a little contributed to her prosperity. The change, great as it is, which her polity has undergone during the last six centuries, has been the effect of gradual development, not of demolition and reconstruction. The present constitution of our country is, to the constitution under which she flourished five hundred years ago, what the tree is to the sapling, what the man is to the boy. The alteration has been great. Yet there never was a moment at which the chief part of what existed was not old. A polity thus formed must abound in anomalies. But for the evils arising from mere anomalies we have ample compensation. Other societies possess written constitutions more symmetrical. But no other society has yet succeeded in uniting revolution with prescription, progress with stability, the energy of youth with the majesty of immemorial antiquity.
This great blessing, however, has its drawbacks: and one of those drawbacks is that every source of information as to our early history has been poisoned by party spirit. As there is no country where statesmen have been so much under the influence of the past, so there is no country where historians have been so much under the influence of the present. Between these two things, indeed, there is a natural connection. Where history is regarded merely as a picture of life and manners, or as a collection of experiments from which general maxims of civil wisdom may be drawn, a writer lies under no very pressing temptation to misrepresent transactions of ancient date. But where history is regarded as a repository of titledeeds, on which the rights of governments and nations depend, the motive to falsification becomes almost irresistible.
Not only is today’s history being sullied by factionalism, but the same could be said our cultural media in all facets. The one-sidedness in American culture and education is nearly all leftward biased, so that the republic would return gently to the state domination of society so prevalent throughout history. For a venerable historian to take sides against ignoble oppression and misery, shows honor and good judgment, rather than self-serving distortion, ignorance, and ill-intentions. Macaulay should thus be read as one attempting to impart great truths of history to the reader with no ulterior motive; the spirit of enlightenment implies that the reader is entrusted with his own mind, and thus it is his responsibility alone to judge for himself.